As Fallout 76 struggles, The Elder Scrolls Online just keeps getting better

By Alex Donaldson, Friday, 11 January 2019 16:35 GMT

There’s been a lot of talk about the massive mess that is Fallout 76 – but with its other beloved RPG property, Bethesda’s online efforts are best-in-class.

The first time I saw The Elder Scrolls Online, Bethesda seemed confident. Instead of revealing the MMO to the mainstream press, they chose to show it to the potentially most critical of audiences – RPG experts, MMO nerds, and of course, die-hard Elder Scrolls fans. They let those reporters and influencers talk about the game, took on feedback, and then later revealed it to the wider world with a more typical promotional blitz. The confidence felt ballsy, but not exactly unearned. ESO showed enormous potential even though from the word go there were significant questions about it – not unlike those swirling in the run up to the release of Fallout 76.

That’s about where the similarities end, however. The Elder Scrolls Online did have a bit of a troubled launch, but it’s fair to say that back on its 2014 release the MMO journey into the Elder Scrolls universe was fine. It was okay. Decent. The issues it had were primarily driven by the game’s unique identity. As a mix of traditional MMO ideas alongside mechanics and traditions from Bethesda’s storied RPG series, ESO risked pleasing nobody – MMO fans could be left wanting with some typical genre staples cut to allow things like first person mode and reliable solo play, while fans of the offline Elder Scrolls games would be left questioning things stripped back to ensure a constant online status. These were issues the developers were clearly aware of. Even in those earliest days, they spoke of wanting to bridge that gap, enticing traditional Elder Scrolls players to a massively multiplayer world.

In 2015 ESO dropped its subscription fee in what PR framed as a brilliant victory for consumers but what whiffed distinctly of a climb-down and defeat for Bethesda. This was actually the best thing to happen to the game however, as this simple change from subscription-based to buy-and-play allowed ESO to quietly shuffle its way into a cosy little niche like a cloaked Dark Brotherhood assassin.

For me, The Elder Scrolls Online became the perfect casual MMO; something I’m happy to buy expansion packs and the occasional in-game purchase for, but something I wouldn’t be playing at all if I had to maintain a costly subscription fee or was forced to sink lots of time in to keep up. I drop in and out of the game depending on my interest and how busy I am, and that in turn is a perfect fit for how the game is designed as a single-player friendly MMO that can either be experienced like any other Elder Scrolls game. It honestly just works, and in turn that makes this the perfect MMO for those who typically don’t have the time, inclination or attention span for the usually very demanding genre. In this sense, ESO finally completed that initial mission.

Also incredibly smart is how ESO now approaches expansion packs, where any given large-scale, full-release expansion can either serve as an addition to your existing journey or an all-new jumping on point for new players. Rather than having to grind out levels to reach the threshold for the content added in 2018’s Summerset expansion, for instance, new players could just hop in and experience new Summerset-appropriate introduction and tutorial sequences. Experienced hands could simply have their characters travel to the new zones instead, where appropriately level-scaled quests for their character await.

If I compare this to other MMOs, the advantage for a player like me is clear. To keep up to date with the excellent Final Fantasy 14 you need to cough up a subscription fee and grind away like an absolute mad-man – or alternatively, pay up a little more still for level boost and skip potions that quite literally amount to paying to skip the content you’ve already paid for. ESO allows me to drop in and out as and when I require and when interesting content drops. Those content drops are frequent and of surprising quality, too, and it’s in this area that hardcore players find additional depth and also where Bethesda makes its money on the whole endeavor.

As the world rightly turns both barrels on the big old mess that is Fallout 76 and tries to set Bethesda to rights, I can’t help but turn my thoughts to The Elder Scrolls Online. Looking back on 2018 I realize that it had some of the strongest and highest quality levels of ongoing support from any live game, and I also can’t help but consider how far it’s come from those early stumbles as a game confused and trapped between its identity as an Elder Scrolls game and its status as an MMO. These successes look set to continue this year too, with ZeniMax Online Studios and Bethesda set to announce a new expansion and 2019 content road map in a matter of days. Here’s hoping that in a few years, Fallout 76 will have a similar renaissance.

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